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Western Women Are Tough


ISSUE:  Spring 1984

In the mahogany sleigh bed a man reaches for me: he wants something, or anything, pretty soon I’ll decide what it is. At my glassy office downtown the last of the problem folders waits on my desk. Someone must be emptying my ashtray. I turn over.

I don’t think about Caffy. Why would I? I don’t expect to find a horse in my closet, nuzzling my only silk blouse. Neither would I imagine a sweet old hardworn cowboy, broke bones a-jingle, dismounting from my kitchen countertop.

But in the morning now I’m needling my way through the stalled traffic on Sixth Avenue, hot engine air breathing on my ankles. I edge between bumpers just inches apart; my shins tingle at the nearness of danger. A lone businessman on the same trail meets my eyes.

His look says: we’re two of a kind. I like this for a microsecond. Then I remember something. At home this evening I scrabble in the closet for the bitten-out shoe box where I keep the old snapshots and Caffy’s letters, unread for 30 years. But when the first one came, a month after he left, I ran all the way down to the creek to read it. He didn’t say blessed much.

LUMLEY, COL.
MAY 24, 1950
HOWDY PARDNER. WELL I’M BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN, THE KIND OF SADDLES THAT I ENJOY NOT LIKE THOSE POSTAGE STAMP THINGS YOU HAVE BACK EAST.I’M WORKING ON A DUDE RANCH HERE IN COL.ALL READY I KINDA MISS ALL YOU KIDS.IF YOU DON’T ANCER I’LL KNOW THAT. YOU DON’T WANT TO HEAR FROM ME.CAFFY.

Caffy showed up at the stable one bitter day in January. He had his saddle, bedroll, and cooking gear, and he wanted a job.

“I give a good day’s work,” Caffy said.

None of us had ever seen a cowboy before. Old Marge Johnson pushed back the fur coat she wore over her jodhpurs. This was Washington, D.C., not a rodeo town. She made her money renting iron-mounted hacks to tourists and teaching riding to suburban children like me.

“You’re in the wrong state, fella,” she said. “My horses don’t neck-rein.” But Caffy said he would do any job she had, and in the end she hired him.

“Just keep that saddle in your car,” Mrs. Johnson told him. “You won’t be using it here.”

I heard about it the Saturday after. I spent all my weekends at the stable: I had grown up horse-crazy, one of those kids you see running circles in the back yard, whinnying and hitting their own legs with sticks. I dreamed—or no longer dreamed—that one day an untamable wild stallion would learn to trust only me, and come to stand at my shoulder, whuffling at the hair on my neck. I was 15.

When my mother dropped me off that morning, I was already late. The rest of the class was trotting around the edge of the ring while Captain Searing set up a timber jump in the center. Hooves rang on the frozen mud. Discarded lumber, piles of cement blocks, and a broken Coke machine leaned against the stable’s old wooden sides.

I ran up to the office to look at the list. The papers on Mrs. Johnson’s desk were smeared with creamy dust. She had written “Patriot” next to my name. They must have been short of rides: Patriot was an untrained two-year-old stallion. I peered out the door unhappily and saw a cowboy walk out to lean against the ring fence. Outlandish and self-possessed, he wore a fringed buckskin shirt, and his stained ten-gallon hat had holes punched in it. His knees were bony, and he wore Army boots. I stalled for a minute. Then I ran up to get Patriot.

LUMLEY, COL.
JUNE 20, 1950
HOWDY PARDNER. HOW IS THINGS OVER AT THE STABLES? HAS EDDIE QUIT YET DON’T THINK HE’LL LAST TOO LONG AFTER I LEFT.HOPE MRS. JOHNSON DON’T HAVE TOO MUCH TROUBLE WITH HER HELP.SAY HELLO TO THE KIDS FOR ME.IF I CAN GET ANY PICTURES HERE I’LL SEND YOU SOME.CAFFY.

“Who’s the one in the hat?” I asked Eddie. “Gary Cooper. Down by the ring.” Eddie, one of the stable hands, was helping me get a saddle on Patriot. Patriot backed up unhelpfully and snorted in the cold.

“New help, name’s Caffy,” Eddie said. “You girls is all passin out. Don’t call him Tex, he don’t like it.” He handed me the cinch strap under Patriot’s gold belly. “You sure the list said Patriot?”

“Yup.” I waited for Patriot to let out his breath and pulled the strap tight.

“Wonderful,” Eddie said. “He ain’t been out of his stall for two weeks, and it’s cold enough to freeze his little eyeballs. Not to mention there’s four mares in that ring.”

“I’ll just have to stay out of the way.” Patriot began moving off while I was still adjusting the stirrup straps. “Could you open the gate?”

Patriot skittered sideways into the ring, blowing mist. My feet had started to numb up in my boots: not a day to fall. I kicked Patriot forward, but he had gotten a whiff of the mares and was hopping raggedly under me. I kicked him again and he reared, screaming. I slid off his back and landed on my feet. Jarred but still holding the reins, I got back on. He reared again and I slid off and got back on again. By the fifth time I was mildly seasick. The class had stopped to watch the show. I heard Captain Searing yell.

“Carolina, don’t you know anything about the birds and the bees?”

I turned red. What did he expect me to do about it? I considered the facts of life amazing and slightly ridiculous, like sticking your finger in someone else’s nose.

Caffy climbed down and walked over. “Why don’t you let me have him a minute?” he asked. Captain Searing nodded so I shrugged and handed over the reins. Caffy swung up and gave Patriot a good crack on the flanks. They took off, Patriot galloping desperately, eyes bugged out, around and around the ring. Caffy slouched back at his ease, long legs dangling almost halfway to the ground. By the time they drew up, Patriot was blowing hard, too tired to make any more trouble. I frowned, the way you do when you see a child thrashed in public.

“He’s going to act nice now,” Caffy said. Then, seeing my look, “I didn’t damage him none. I was afraid you was going to get hurt.”

LUMLEY, COL.
JULY 28, 1950
HOWDY PARDNER. THIS IS A NICE PLACE, WE HAVE A RODEO EVERY SUNDAY.I’VE GOT 118 HORSES TO PICK FROM.I’VE PICKED TWO FOR MYSELF, THEY ARE THE ONLY ONES I CAN ROPE OFF OF.THINGS ARE AWFULLY BUSY HERE BUT I’LL ALL WAYS FIND A LITTLE TIME TO WRITE TO YOU IF IT COSTS ME. SWEET DREAMS.CAFFY.

His name was Jesse McCaughlin. He was the real thing, a cowboy from the Medina River country in Texas, stopped off here in the long drift of his 37th year. Every bone in his body had been broken at least once. His blue eyes looked as if they had never focused closer than the next corral, and he kept his hat on inside.

“Caffy’s bald,” crowed Gwen. We had caught him with it off, inspecting the rim. A grubby bunch of teenagers, we did chores around the stable in return for free jumping lessons. Caffy called us “the kids” and kept an eye on us.

“I ain’t that old,” Caffy said. He put his hat back on. “I got boilin’ water spilt on my head when I was just young. My hair didn’t grow right since.” He bent over and picked up Goblin’s near hind foot to clean out the hoof. We watched.

“How’d you get so far from home?” Mike asked. He was leaning against Applejack’s stall.

“I guess I been wandering ever since I was 16,” Caffy said. “Worked on ranches, rode broncs in rodeos.”

“So why did you come here?” Mike persisted.

“Oh, well, I went up to Las Vegas for a spell, and I met a little old girl and she invited me to Washington. Her daddy was a senator or somethin’. Anyways, here I am.” Caffy raised his head. “Look out.”

There was a tearing sound as Applejack took Mike’s shirt in her teeth and ripped it neatly down the back to his belt.

PARADISE RANCH, COL.
AUG 31, 1950
HOWDY PARDNER. HONEY THIS WON’T BE A LONG LETTER.I JUST CAN’T FIND ANYTHING TO WRITE THAT YOU WOULD CARE TO HEAR ABOUT.WHAT IS GOING ON AROUND YOUR PART OF THE COUNTRY? HOW IS YOUR HORSE RIDING COMING? SURE WISH I COULD TAKE ONE SHORT RIDE WITH YOU.WE GOT GOOD HORSES OUT HERE.BYE FOR NOW, CAFFY.

Caffy lived in a shack up the dirt slope from the stable. I never knew what he did on his own time. I never asked. After class I would perch on the big wooden feed box. Sometimes Caffy came by, and we would sit for a while. From the stalls came contented metal clankings, and soft thuds as weight was shifted from one hoof to another. The warm air smelled of manure, hay, and leather. Dust, too.

“I s’pose you’ve had your sweet 16 birthday,” Caffy said.

“No yet. I’m 15.”

“That right? I thought you was 16. Sure is hard to tell a woman’s age sometimes.” He leaned over and scraped some dried mud off my right boot. “You’re pretty big for 15.Strong, too. Bet you’d learn real quick how to handle a bronc.”

“Sure, right away.” I didn’t think I was up to bronc riding.

“I admit I got hurt some myself,” Caffy said. “Horse knocked me down once and got me so bad I had an eyelid hangin’ off. Didn’t want to go to the hospital, so I asked the nurse to stitch it up right there, just give me a pint of whiskey. The foreman, he was watchin,’ and he fainted.”

“Ick.” I erased myself from the scene, even as witness.

“You got plenty of nerve,” Caffy said, “That time on Patriot, you stuck right in there. Wouldn’t take much to teach you.”

I saw Texas: a dusty plain, with no library for a hundred miles.

Western women were pretty tough, Caffy told me. They pierced their own ears. He knew one who had broken her leg in the desert and she had made a splint and walked for help. They didn’t go overmuch for education. He had a cousin, a real nice girl, who’d insisted on going away to school. But she’d “gotten in trouble” and had to come home.

“Maybe I shouldn’t be talking about this to you.”

“That’s all right,” I said. “I know what you mean.”

PARADISE RANCH, COL.
OCT 15, 1950
HI LINNY. YES, I WAS THINKING YOU HAD STOPPED WRITEN TO ME, SO I WAS HAPPY WHEN I GOT YOUR LETTER.SURE WOULD LIKE TO SEE YOU.ASK MRS. JOHNSON IF I COME BACK COULD I HAVE MY OLD JOB, SEE WHAT SHE SAYS.IF I EVER COME BACK IT WILL BE JUST FOR YOU, THAT’S THE WAY IT IS IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE IT.ANCER SOONER NEXT TIME.CAFFY.

Stable life crystallized from a gel of muck and manure. I was at home there, like any child in a dirt pile. I had been riding long enough to see that most horses are dimwitted half tons of fractiousness, wide-eyed and unbright, as likely to step on you as not. But that didn’t diminish the weight of their beauty or the pleasure of commanding it. They were naked, silky: androgynes to me. I watched as they urinated in steaming waterfalls and excreted hot mounds of droppings. In the corners of their stalls, miraculously not stepped on, a tribe of gray cats copulated and gave birth. At night the rats would emerge from their underground tunnels and chew on the ears of hapless newborn kittens. Now and then Caffy and Eddie would mark tunnel exits and return to the stable after dark with flashlights tied to the ends of rifles. In the morning there would be a pile of rat bodies by the Coke machine.

In my own house I was less comfortable. I was rightly accused of acting like a royal visitor. I read books in the garage. My mother interrupted long enough to teach me to dance (“On a Slow Boat to China”) and play bridge. But I wanted to be more than nice. When I was ten, our soldiers were fighting the Nazis in Germany. I pulled my wagon around the neighborhood collecting paper, and daydreamed of making heroic attacks on enemy machine-gun nests. When I was wounded, they would say, “My God, it’s a girl!” Or later, I wanted to be a spy. If the Russians caught me, could they make me talk? I plotted secret guerrilla routes down the creek.

Heroism appealed; it reeked of a certainty I didn’t have. I knew I was too young to know anything yet. I was on hold, scanning for patterns. Now and then in the back seat of a car I politely removed a boy’s hand from my breast. From a person without opinions, indignation was uncalled-for.

At the stable, the kids would sometimes refuse to tell me what they were laughing about. “Carolina has delicate ears,” Gwen said. The secret would turn out to be that the vet had gelded a horse or Eddie had altered a cat. I let it pass.

GREAT BEND, KAN
DEC 10, 1950
HOWDY PARDNER. DID YOU THINK I’D FORGOTTEN ABOUT YOU? THAT WOULD BE HARD TO DO.WELL, GUESS YOU WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT I’M DOING IN THESE PARTS.I WAS GOING TO PHOENIX FOR THE WINTER, BUT IT WAS TOO HOT DOWN THERE.I’M WORKING HERE IN THE OIL FIELDS AT TIME BEING UNTILL IT GETS COLD, THEN I’LL PULL OUT FOR SOMEWHERE ELSE.SURE WOULD LIKE TO SEE YOU IT WILL BE A LONG TIME BEFORE I GET OVER THAT.CAFFY.

In the spring Captain Searing took to wearing his navy blazer with the U.S. Olympic team shield. The horse-show season was nearing. He made us jump without stirrups, or without hands. We fell often enough, but no one was seriously injured. Once, double jumping with Gwen, I fell under her horse’s hooves; she ran out the back and threw up. I felt fine; I hadn’t seen the steel shoes just miss my skull.

Before class Caffy would help me saddle up, and afterward he’d be waiting in Goblin’s stall. Other times I’d be aware of him just behind and to the side, so that my shoulder touched the side of his arm. His presence had warmth and density. I felt tied to it. If I didn’t know where he was, I went looking, so I could have his location fixed in my mind. The kids began to tease. “Find Linny, find Caffy,” they said. Mike produced an old Bible and pretended to read over us.

My mother stayed to watch class one morning. Caffy touched his hat. He took my baby sister Joycie for a ride on one of the ponies. Joycie chuckled and clutched his shirt sleeve. “You’re good with children,” my mother said.

“Yes, ma’am,” Caffy said.

I told him after she’d gone, “She likes you.”

“Why shouldn’t she?” Caffy asked.

We took to sitting by ourselves, almost hidden, on the topmost of the stacked bales of hay. He told me about his home in Texas and how he had-been the oldest of nine children.

“Things was pretty tough then,” he said. “There wasn’t no money. I figured I was the one to go. On a ranch job you got 50 cents a day and your board. But I was young yet, and that’s all I knowed to do.”

His brother still ran the family place, he said, and so he would go back to visit a month or so every year. There were Pawnee and Osage reservations nearby.

“Time gone, they’d have raindances plumb through the month of September, like to drove me crazy.” He reached in his pocket. “I brought something to show you.”

It was a rough-textured sepia photograph of a fat old Indian.

“Turn it,” Caffy said.

I turned it. It became a Victorian sepia photograph of a fat white naked woman.

“Hmm,” I said.

“Thought you’d get a kick out of that,” Caffy said. “I’ve had it for years. It might even be worth somethin’ now.”

I had my hands on my knees. He reached oyer and rubbed my thumb with his, gently, for a long time. I grew dizzy.

Gwen’s head appeared at hip level “Caffy fell off this morning, did he tell you?” He pretended to swat at her with a piece of hay, and she giggled and ran around the corner.

“I got Applejack out,” Caffy said, “Just thought I’d see what it was like jumpin’. But that little saddle had me all jacked up and I went off.”

“I didn’t know you were interested in jumping,”

“Don’t know that I am. I guess I just didn’t want all you kids heehawin’ at me.”

At noon he would go up to his shack for lunch, and I would wait on top of the hay bales for him. I began to imagine that Caffy would lead me up the hill to the shack, and that we would lie down on his bed. Past that I didn’t see clearly. Without being asked, I thought, yes. He was the only one who’d stood quiet long enough for me to- stop shying and come to hand.

I started to lean against things. At home I would lay my forehead against a doorpost or the kitchen cabinet, stroking it softly up and down. Walking restlessly through the house, I would anchor myself by picturing Caffy at the stable only six miles away. Once I kissed the refrigerator.

I never told Caffy what I was thinking. I remembered the cousin he had shaken his head over.

Caffy took to driving me home from the stable. My parents were pleasant, but they didn’t invite him in.

“It doesn’t look right, Linnie,” my mother said. “Caffy must be 40, 45 even.”

I put on my blank look.

“Linnie, listen to me for once. The Great Stone Face, it’s so frustrating. Look, I’m sure you’re not doing anything wrong.”

“No?”

“No. Do I have to be the villain all the time? I’ve talked it over with your father, and he’s agreed you can still go to the stable. I told him it will all blow over, and this will be something nice for you to remember when you’re older.”

I was too relieved to protest. Anyway I wasn’t sure she was wrong. I wished Caffy and my folks didn’t get along so well— you’d think I was some fragile plant they were watering and keeping at the right temperature.

EL CAMPO, TEXAS
FEB 3, 1951
HOWDY PARDNER. WELL, I’VE GOT A JOB HERE FOR A WHILE ANYWAY, THEN GUESS I’LL HEAD HOME. I’VE BEEN MAKING AROUND $100 A WEEK, HATE TO LEAVE IT BUT IT SURE GETS LONESOME WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW ANY ONE OR THEY AINT NO HORSES AROUND.SURE WISH I HAD ME A SWEET LITTLE WIFE TO TAKE WITH ME BUT CAN’T FIND ONE THAT WILL HAVE ME THAT I WANT.MAYBE I’LL FIND HER SOME DAY.TOO BAD YOU AINT A LITTLE OLDER. LOVE, CAFFY.

In April the stable took a new boarder, a huge Clydesdale with hooves the size of buckets. On Saturday afternoons we had to take placid old Clyde in the van to an outdoor arena where they were rehearsing a historical pageant. George Washington was supposed to ride Clyde on stage. Every week we produced Clyde, and every week George Washington would take one look and refuse to mount. He always led his troops on foot.

We held our own rodeo one Sunday. We practiced cracking the 15-foot bullwhip until our backs ached. Gwen jumped her gray over clanging buckets and over the stream from a waterhose. We let Clyde loose in the ring and Caffy lassoed him. He threw his rope over fence posts and around fleeing, giggling children. Mike rode Twilight bareback, at a canter, lying down. I pretended to ride a mean-minded pony named Danny. Danny was so small I could stand over him without touching his back, but he bucked so hard he hurt my crotch anyway and I had to move off. We were sweaty and laughing.

“Where’s Clyde?” Mike called.

“Gone, who left the gate open?”

Clyde’s immense rump could be seen disappearing over the hill. Gwen and I clambered after him, disgusted. Caffy jumped in the stable pickup truck and drove out to head him off the other way.

Panting in the spring warmth, we followed Clyde’s monstrous footprints through flattened flowerbeds, listening ahead for the shouts of outraged homeowners. Finally we had him boxed in. Clyde floated ponderously between us and the truck and then stopped, shaking his heavy head. Caffy threw a rope over him.

“Give me the halter,” Gwen said, “I’ll ride him back.”

I climbed in the truck, elated, and Caffy pulled me over. Crushed into his side, I could feel the heat from his ribcage. He drove with one hand, the other making slow circles on the back of my neck. He was singing. He sang “Tennessee Waltz,” and then he sang “Sweet Violets.”

“There once was a farmer who took a young miss

In back of the barn where he gave her a—”

I breathed quietly, staring at my hands, grimy with dust and sweat, palms up on my thighs.

“Lecture on horses and chickens and eggs

And told her that she had such beautiful—”

A thread pulled in my belly, twisting the muscles. “My stomach feels funny,” I said.

Caffy took his hand away. “It’s gettin late,” he said. “I’ll drive you home. Did you leave anythin’ at the stable?”

“No.” We headed down the East-West Highway, through Bethesda, and turned onto Bradley Boulevard. The pale green lawns, new dogwood, and redbud of the Maryland suburbs flashed by.

“Be summer soon,” Caffy said. “Time for me to leave, Linnie.”

I cleared my throat. “What?”

“I’ll be leavin next week, honey. There’s a ranch in Colorado that if I get out there in time, I get my pick of the horses.”

“You’ll miss the show at Four Corners.”

“Well, things is just like that, it can’t be helped. But I got an idea. Why don’t you just throw a pair of jeans in the back of the car and come along? You’ll never know what Texas is like if you don’t try it.”

I bent over and gave my boot a nervous tug. Was I really being asked?

“Well, it’s a good dream, anyways,” Caffy said. “There’s just too much difference in our age. I heard stories about things like that. Now when you’re 18, that might be somethin’ else.”

I turned my head. From the car window I could see the creek where I made waterfalls and caught crayfish. It was quiet now, the red clay bottom settled. Caffy pulled into our driveway.

“Would you write me?”

“Sure, if you want.” He put a brief hand under my chin. I got out.

In the middle of the week I phoned the stable from home, something I’d never done before. Caffy was gone.

In May I got his first letter, and for almost a year after that he wrote me from various places out West. I answered with stable gossip and school news. Then:

IMPERIAL, TEXAS
APRIL 7, 1951
HOWDY PARDNER. GUESS I’D BETTER GET ON THE BALL HERE AND WRITE YOU A FEW LINES, YOU WILL BE ASKING FOR A DIVORCE THE FIRST THING I KNOW.I GOT HOME LAST MONTH.WE SURE ARE BUSY TRYING TO GET OPENED UP.I’VE GOT A BUNCH OF HORSES TO BREAK.ONE ALL READY PAWED ME DOWN, LIKE TO BROKE MY LEGS IN FOUR PLACES, BUT I’M OK NOW AND READY FOR MORE.SURE WISH YOU COULD HELP ME, I KNOW YOU WOULD BE GOOD AT IT.I BOUGHT ME A QUARTER HORSE STALLION, HE’S A BEAUTY.I’M SENDING YOU A PICTURE.WRITE SOON THIS TIME FOR I GUESS I’LL ALWAYS LOVE YOU.CAFFY.

I didn’t answer this letter, so I didn’t get another. The picture showed Caffy in jeans and work shirt sitting on a heavily muscled palomino. In the background was a cluttered dirt yard with a stake fence.

I went on to school in Connecticut, marriage and divorce in Philadelphia, work in New York. Once or twice when the rodeo came to the city I scanned the list of winners for J. McCaughlin.

In my shoe box there’s a photo of me and Caffy. He is standing with an arm around my shoulders, looking down at me, smiling. I am looking at the camera, dark-haired and pretty in an ordinary way.

What did Caffy see? Courage and honor, I suspect. There’s that look, as if we were alike. But I’m in my forties now and I’m still on hold, still waiting for some truth final enough to act on. Oh, I’m as tough as I have to be: I fend off subway crazies, I make the landlord repair the plumbing, I don’t let my lover rearrange me. But I guess I wanted to be brave instead.

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